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If I’m correct Sforno in his commentary on Bereshit 3:1 teaches in short that the snake represents ‘the power of imagination’ (imaginative faculty).

The Or HaChayim teaches that Adam and Chava were able to understand ‘the language’ that the animals ‘spoke’.

Abarbanel explains this, stating that the serpent did not speak literally, but through its actions and appearance (see also Job 12: 7-8, 28:14, 28:22, Psalm 148: 7 for similar examples) and the thought that man had about this.

Hence, by the acts of the serpent, it was supposed that the fruits of the tree of knowledge would be delightfully good. Bereshit 3:10, according to Abarbanel, would mean, "Adam's imagination was more tricky than the imagination of any other beast of the field. Because the human imagination is capable of forming syllogisms and arguments that appear to be true - something that animals are incapable of ". The snake is seen by the Chazal as the symbol of the imagination and the Zohar explains that the snake’s voice was not the voice of a living being, but 'an inner voice' (internal dialogue) which convinced Chava (defended and convincingly) to eat from the tree.

If there was a real snake (external force) which through the power of our imagination formed an image (inner voice) which Chava and Adam thought of to be the truth, which caused them to sin. Then it was only an trigger which started this thought process.

In such a case what should we make of the words spoken by HaShem in Bereshit 3:14-15?

[And for those who would like to share other options/thoughts - if the snake (could be an animal, satan, yetzer hara or one of the malachim) did indeed literally spoke to Chava then why was it cursed? Wasn’t the snake just fulfilling (its mission/task/purpose) what it was made for.

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    Does this answer your question? Why was the snake punished? – Renato Grun Sep 21 '20 at 0:50
  • @RenatoGrun not really, I would like to know the meaning of the words “you shall go on your belly” and “eating dust” etc, if we follow the idea that the snake was not a real snake or didn’t spoke in the literal sense. – Levi Sep 21 '20 at 11:01
  • I’m not asking why it was punished, but for the meaning of this punishment/curse. Some commentaries talk about a snake with legs, being highly spiritual etc, but I find the explanations as given by Sforno, Abarbanel, the Or HaChayim, Zohar (and other sources) quite plausible, yet I can’t figure out how to explain the curse in those cases; which seems to refer directly to an actual physical snake which needs to go on its belly and eat dust. – Levi Sep 21 '20 at 11:06
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In Genesis 3:14, after the snake seduced Eve and after she ate of the fruit of the tree of good and evil, G-d declared: “You will eat dust all the days of your life.” We could ask, was this a curse? It has been well-documented that snakes do not eat dust. However, if we refer to the previous verse, we read “you will go upon your belly.” When we put the two verses together, we realize that this is a metaphor that should not be taken literally. The Bible is saying that the snake will crawl on its belly and its face will be in the dust.

With regards to יצר הרע, an evil inclination, my rabbi feels that the yetzer hara is not real in the sense that it exists sperate from humans, although humans have the ability to exercise their free will. Furthermore, neither humans nor animals were cursed in the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Exe exercised their free will as G-d intended. It is a gift, not a curse, from Adam and Eve. Besides, if this was such a calamity, why did G-d place the snake in the garden in the first place?

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I understand these pessukim as follows.

The snake is not necessarily a separate entity to man, rather the snake represents the ability of man to act in a snake-like manner. Thus the curse of the snake is a curse on people who are snake-like.

And the curse means that ultimately their felony will be exposed, and their lowliness will become apparent. As the Mesillas Yesharim says:

משל לבית מלא תבן, והיה בבית חורין, והיה התבן נכנס בהם, לאחר ימים התחיל אותו התבן שהיה בתוך אותם החורין יוצא, ידעו הכל כי היה אותו בית של תבן. כן הדבר הזה, שלא יוכלו תמיד להסתיר את עצמם, ומחשבתם הרעה תהיה ניכרת מתוך מעשיהם

It is analogous to a house full of straw, and there were cracks in the walls of the house, and the straw started seeping through the cracks. After a few days the straw started emerging outside the house and everyone realised the house was full of straw. So too is this matter, that arrogant will not be able to constantly hide their true selves, and their evil thoughts will become apparent from their deeds.

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  • Maybe not? So you have a source? – Yaakov5777 Sep 21 '20 at 8:43
  • Could you explain this somewhat more; how should the words that HaShem uttered in such a case be understood; “you shall go on your belly” “eating dust” etc. – Levi Sep 21 '20 at 10:59
  • @yaakov5777 Added some explanation, is that better? – The GRAPKE Sep 21 '20 at 23:17
  • @Levi Added explanation, thanks – The GRAPKE Sep 21 '20 at 23:26
  • @TheGRAPKE It would be appreciated of you would express yourself in English or if you would define what you mean when you use hebrew phrases or transliterations of hebrew expressions. – Levi Feb 27 at 13:57
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Since you quoted the Arbabanel I would add that he also points out that the greatest "punishment" for the serpent should have been removing the serpent's ability to speak! And yet that's not listed as the punishment. But it's also worth noting that the serpent seems to lose its ability to speak before God begins punishing. God calls out Adam, Adam speaks and blames the wife, the wife speaks and blames the snake, and the snake...doesn't speak.

However, the question is about the punishment and making sense of it. I'm a believer in using the surrounding text to try and make sense of things. So here's what I've noticed.

  1. There are 3 beings that are punished
  2. Adam's punishment is plainly related to his sin of eating a forbidden fruit, so now he will struggle to farm for the rest of his life. From this I'm willing to wager that the other punishments are also related to their sins.
  3. Let's look at the other two punishments and see if they can shed light on the sins.

On a cursory look, Eve's punishments look fairly detached from her sin. She ate the fruit and so now her childbirth is painful? But perhaps her sin wasn't truly the eating of the fruit, but rather what she hoped to achieve by eating the fruit. The serpent told her that by eating the fruit she would be "like God."

" ה כִּי, יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים, כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם; וִהְיִיתֶם, כֵּאלֹהִים, יֹדְעֵי, טוֹב וָרָע. 5 for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil.' "

It's my opinion that Eve's only experience with God is Him being the creator of all life. Therefore, to her being like God is to be able to create life, and so this was her intent when she ate of the fruit. This not only explains her punishment, but also explains why she and Adam didn't have kids until after being cast out of the garden.

So if Eve wanted to be able to create life, then what did the snake want? Obviously the snake needs some kind of motive, or else why risk God's wrath? Well, let's look at its/their punishment and see if there's anything that ties his punishment to her punishment.

" .' יד וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל-הַנָּחָשׁ, כִּי עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת, אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל-הַבְּהֵמָה, וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה; עַל-גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ, וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל כָּל-יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. 14 And the LORD God said unto the serpent: 'Because thou hast done this, cursed art thou from among all cattle, and from among all beasts of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. טו וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית, בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, וּבֵין זַרְעָהּ: הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ, וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב. {ס} 15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel.' {S} "

The first part of the serpent's punishment is interesting. The snake is now more cursed than all cattle and beasts of the field. This makes sense because the serpent caused humans to sin when the other animals are blameless, but how is that punishment connected to: enmity between woman's seed and serpent's seed?

It's my opinion that the first part of the punishment is echoing back to Adam's failed attempt to mate with the cattle and the beasts of the field (of which the snake would have been a part of).

Genesis 2:20 כ וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁמוֹת, לְכָל-הַבְּהֵמָה וּלְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּלְכֹל, חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה; וּלְאָדָם, לֹא-מָצָא עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ. 20 And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a help meet for him.

The second part of the punishment ties into Eve's desire to get pregnant, and my theory is that the snake wanted to be the one to impregnate her. Therefore not only did God diminish the serpent, I believe God removed all of the serpent's appendages, and as the final touch God put enmity between the serpent's seed and Eve's seed as a punishment fitting the almost crime. This also provides motive for the snakes actions, because otherwise the snake appears to have nothing to gain for taking Eve down this path.

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